A stage play about becoming "Master of Your Own Destiny"


Joe Laben has a problem. It is 1935 and his mining village of Reserve Mines, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia is surrounded by blackness —blackness from working sun-up to sundown in dark coal pits. The younger siblings of Joe's wife have just been orphaned and Joe desperately wants to adopt them. But the Labens' company shack is no place to raise children. Joe needs a house. Yet with no other work but the mine and the Company taking every dime for the store, the utilities and the rent, there is no place to turn. Joe Laben has only a grade three education himself. The situation is grim.

But the blackness of Reserve Mines soon sees a light in the form of a man in whose vocabulary the word “defeat” does not have a place —Father Jimmy Tompkins —an irascible, screechy little man who throws his furniture on the lawn to start a library in his Glebe. He shows up everywhere to forcibly drag people into his library to read —the washhouse, the pit, your doorstep at midnight. People run the other way when they see him coming up the street — all except for Mary Laben, who sees the light of possibility in Father Jimmy's blathering on about education and co-operation being the keys to freedom. Now all she needs to do is convince her husband Joe — oh yes, and change their own lives to become masters of their own destiny.

Tompkinsville is based on the real-life story of Father Jimmy Tompkins' shining the light of education into lives engulfed by the darkness of ignorance. He began a library in the vestibule of the rectory, preaching the value of education during Sunday sermons and buttonholing people on the street to borrow his books. Soon all of Reserve Mines was reading. When the mines were operating only two days a week and miners’ wives were skimping to make ends meet, Tompkins ordered a slew of agricultural books for his library. From the words on the page to hands on the plough, soon seventy-five families had a community garden of ninety acres and a cooperative brooder for chickens.

The “University of Reserve Mines” had begun. With money such a concern, Tompkins brought in books about credit unions. Soon Reserve Mines had a flourishing credit union of its own, the first credit union in English Canada. When a study group asked the question, “Why can’t we build our own homes?” Tompkins asked, “Why not?” The only problem—neither Tompkins nor any of his parishioners knew anything about cooperative housing.  They found their solution in Mary Arnold, who had risen to a prestigious level in New York for her work in cooperatives. She was also rumoured to be a lesbian in a lifelong relationship in 1935. Arnold travelled to Reserve Mines to meet Tompkins, intending to spend only one day. She ended up staying two years and became the leader of the cooperative housing group called “Tompkinsville.”

In 1938, Tompkinsville’s houses stood proud and tall, the result of sweat, tears and a hope that superseded them all. Once upon a time, this tiny community changed its own world, one book at a time.

As Tompkinsville’s houses stood tall, so did Joe Laben, now a self-made man with a wealth of education and a house of his very own. Joe went on to lead cooperatives all over North America and became a lecturer and scholar who would write the book on cooperative housing.

However, when asked in a CBC interview in the 1970s if he had any regrets, Joe Laben replied, “Our one mistake was we didn’t teach the young.” 

His wife, Mary, was asked the same thing in an interview in the 1990s. She replied, "Look out that window there. See the kids playing on Tompkinsville? They grew up here and even they don't know its story."

Playwright, speaker and actor Lindsay Kyte is a third-generation native of Reserve Mines, Cape Breton. She is also the great-niece of Joe and Mary Laben (seen in the picture before in Aunt Mary's arms). And even Kyte did not know this story. That is, until she opened a book in 2007 and found her relatives staring determinedly up at her from the page, labelled as pioneers of the co-operative movement. It was then that her quest to tell the incredible story of Tompkinsville began, leading Kyte herself on a journey of coincidences, miracles and situations that leave you shaking your head in disbelief. 

But if you can dream it, you can do it. 

And you can do it — it's been proven before.